Almost immediately after it was announced that President Goodluck Jonathan won Nigeria’s presidential election this past weekend, violence erupted in many northern states. This post-election violence unfortunately tarnishes the nationwide vote that most observers deemed to be an improvement over previous elections, although it is evident that some rigging did occur.
Since the government transferred from military to civilian rule in 1999, each election has been riddled with violations. The 2007 presidential elections were generally considered deeply flawed. Election rigging, electoral fraud, and voter intimidation have been fixtures in Nigerian elections. Much of this was owed to the massively inaccurate voter registration list—which laughably listed Nelson Mandela and Mike Tyson as voters.
This election year, the government made significant attempts to reform the system. Last June, Jonathan appointed a respected academic, Attahiru Jega, to head the Independent National Electoral Commission. Tasked with ensuring that the elections were free and fair, Jega implemented robust reforms and held those seeking to disrupt the process accountable. Despite initial delays in the election process, international observers endorsed the election results, describing them as “generally acceptable.” Jonathan won, quickly surpassing the mandatory 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. He reportedly received 22.5 million votes, with his nearest rival trailing by 10 million. The U.S. State Department hailed the elections a “positive new beginning for Nigeria.”
While the international community has accepted the results, many in northern Nigeria have not. Nigeria’s religious divisions between North and South will remain a flashpoint for some time. Tensions flared considerably since last September when President Jonathan, a Southern Christian, decided to run as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, a choice opponents say violates Nigeria’s zoning system, under which the presidency is supposed to rotate between the North and South.
Rioters have burned churches and mosques and targeted PDP officials and supporters in the North. Both President Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari have called for a restoration of peace. Former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell sees this escalation of violence as the continuing pattern of bifurcation within the country.
With gubernatorial elections scheduled for this weekend, continued violence is expected. In many areas, curfews have been declared and the Nigerian military is patrolling the streets. Campbell anticipates that the “the gubernatorial elections will be a further indication of whether the country is bifurcating along regional and religious lines.”
Once Nigeria’s elections are over, the Nigerian government should make a determined effort to ease religious and ethnic tensions. This will require working closely with state and local leaders to resolve issues regarding marginalization and discrimination.
As Africa’s most populous country and a major oil supplier, Nigeria is a key U.S. trade partner. It has also proven to be a force for stability in Africa in recent years. In order for Nigeria to sustain its international commitments, democratic governance must improve and energetic efforts must be made to heal the North–South, Christian–Muslim divide.